Pender's Blog

Blog archive

Why We Don't Want Privacy

Stand up if you care about privacy. Great, thanks. Now, if you have one of those discount cards from your grocery store or drugstore, sit down. If you've ever submitted a credit report for pretty much anything, don't remain standing. If you've ever just clicked "I agree" without reading one of those terms-and-conditions documents, have a seat. (And if you managed to get through South Park's "Apple Human CentiPad" episode last night, bless you. Your editor watched primarily out of a sense of professional obligation, but that was some nasty stuff.)

If you have an iPhone, watch your next move -- Steve Jobs can see you right now. OK, not really. Well, maybe he can, but he's probably too busy looking in a mirror or checking his stock portfolio to notice you sitting there in the coffee shop with your hipster iWhatever sipping something bitter and foamy. (Speaking of bitter, somebody needs to name a coffee after Paul Allen. But we digress.) Still, you're worried about what Steve, or Google, or even Microsoft with Windows Phone 7 might know about you, right?

The recent brouhaha (there are simply not enough occasions to use that word) about privacy and the tracking capabilities of the iPhone, Android OS and even Windows Phone 7 has users, advocate types and all sorts of people in the punditsphere bemoaning the loss and lack of privacy in our super-connected society. Really, though, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Let's establish right off the bat that most technology vendors care more about how you use their products than about whether you sneak off to the doughnut shop every morning after politely picking at your Cheerios in front of your wife and kids. And when research does go beyond the vendor norm, some of what the snoopers are doing with our cell phone records really is amazing -- sometimes in a good way. The Wall Street Journal (subscription required, maybe; we keep getting different results on that) had a good article about cell-snooping stuff recently. Our only criticism of it is this: Robert Lee Hotz, the article's author, really needs to go by Bobby Lee Hotz so that his name will make him sound either like a small-time blues musician or like a guy who would have pitched middle relief for the Texas Rangers in the '70s -- or both.

Anyway, regardless of who knows what about us, it's pretty clear that most of us only pay lip service to caring about privacy. The fact is that we happily give up privacy all the time in exchange for convenience and other perks. Those customer-loyalty cards we get at the supermarket? They're surely tracking at the very least what we buy at the store and how much we spend, which isn't information we might want just anybody to know. But if we can get 10 percent off every tenth purchase or whatever, hey, that seems fair.

Credit reports? Do you ever seriously look at these things? You probably do, but only to make sure that everything on them is correct. Never mind how many contract-based service providers of all kinds (and, increasingly, prospective employers) absolutely have to see our credit histories in order to sign us up for, say, satellite TV or a cell phone contract (the latter of which will just expose us further, anyway). Showing a credit report for a mortgage or a car loan makes sense, but for, say, cable Internet service? Just let us pay the bills and cut us off if we don't. We're not talking about a long-term commitment or a major financial outlay here. And, yet, everybody has to be all up in our business, quite literally.

At this point, maybe you're thinking that at least the supermarkets and satellite TV providers are up-front about which of your personal details they're going to track or peruse. And maybe you're thinking that Apple, Google and Microsoft aren't quite so honest in disclosing what they plan to know about you. But that (along with last night's South Park) begs the question: Are you sure? Granted, those terms-and-conditions documents every possible vendor, retailer and Web site bombards us with are nearly unreadable. And granted, there's not a lot we can do if we don't actually agree with them, other than effectively turn down a service we obviously want (and usually the sooner, the better) or we wouldn't have all that legal barf staring us in the face in the first place.

The bottom line is, though, that we agree to things all the time without having any idea what it is we're actually accepting. (Sure, your editor is speaking in generalities here, but think about your own experience with clicking "I agree," for instance.) And do you know the real reason why we don't bother to read those things? Do you know why there has never been real public outcry about how difficult they are to navigate? Because we don't care. For one thing, we don't care about details. Millions of Americans didn't start asking for simplified credit card conditions or easier-to-understand mortgage agreements until gross misuse and misappropriation of credit essentially wrecked our economy. So, yeah, we're not big readers of the fine print. In fact, we'd rather not actually know what it says and just cross our fingers and hope everything works out OK.

More than that, though, we don't care about privacy. We'll happily sacrifice it -- or potentially sacrifice it, neither knowing nor caring whether we are or not -- in exchange for some sort of reward. Just check Apple's next earnings report to see how many people really did ditch their iPhones as a result of this privacy mini-scandal. Look at whether Android's market share plummets or whether Windows Phone 7...actually, let's just stick with iOS and Android here.

The point is that while we might not like how much the creators of these operating systems know about us, we're not going to ditch all those cool apps and all that nifty functionality just because we're worried that Apple might be able to track us stopping by the bar on the way home from work when we're supposed to be rushing home to meet the in-laws. Most of the outrage we're hearing about privacy right now is just empty ranting. If the rubber ever meets the road and we start abandoning our smartphones by the millions, refusing en masse to click "I agree" when a spew of legalese pops up online and telling the folks down at the drug store that maybe they should give us discounts just for being good customers, then we'll prove how much we care about privacy. Until then, we're all talk and no action -- because we like it that way. It's easy. It's convenient.

And let's not even get into all the things smartphones can do because they track us, how much faster and easier to use they are than they would be if we were cloaked in anonymity. Trade privacy for a half-second faster Internet download? Heck, yeah, we will! Besides, if social media has taught us anything, it's that we crave exposure, not privacy. We're very happy to turn over a ridiculous number of personal details to Facebook, LinkedIn and even the infernal Twitter just so that we can tell people we went to high school with and haven't seen in 20 years that, yes, we are having meat loaf for dinner, or that some politician from the other party really is a gosh-darn scoundrel.

There are people out there who put their money where their mouths are, so to speak, when it comes to maintaining privacy. Some of them live and walk among the rest of us; others live in cabins in remote areas and haven't paid income taxes in 40 years. But most of us are happy to be tracked, traced and trolled because it's just easier that way and because the more privacy we surrender, the cooler electronic things seem to get. And that's worth it...right?

What are you doing to protect your privacy? How concerned are you about what vendors and other interlopers know about you? Have you ever sacrificed anything in the name of privacy? Have your say at lpender@rcpmag.com or at the comments section below.

Posted by Lee Pender on April 28, 2011 at 11:57 AM